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Climate Change Summit Encourages Grass Roots and Local Efforts as a Start

The much-ballyhooed climate change summit held in San Francisco earlier this month did not result in any national legislation or formal international pacts, but many believe it could bring about more meaningful change than the years of discussions between presidents, prime ministers, and other world leaders.

Organizers, activists, and scientists believe that cities, countries, companies, and concerned citizens – bolstered by some of the insights and leading-edge programs discussed at the summit – will carry forward the message that immediate change is necessary.

“The U.N. talks are still locked in this finger-pointing dynamic, where people act as if tackling climate change is a zero-sum game,” Alden Meyer, the director of policy and strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the New York Times. “The atmosphere (at the summit) has been different, there’s a real can-do spirit. We’ll see if that mentality can permeate upward.”

At the San Francisco summit, co-organized by California Gov. Jerry Brown, business executives from around the world sat with mayors, governors, activists, and scientists to speak about early efforts in reducing greenhouse gases that cause global warming and other changes in the climate. There are, in fact, some success stories, and organizers believed that showing that some of the efforts have turned out to be financially advantageous—to a company or a community, or a state or nation—would prompt others to follow suit.

Many announcements, vows, and pledges came forth. Car manufacturers from around the world promised to invest more in technologies that will power vehicles with electric energy; several large U.S.-based companies announced new programs that would limit deforestation in their supply chains; Tokyo, Rotterdam, and West Hollywood pledged to buy only zero-emissions buses after 2025; various foundations vowed to give billions to fight climate change; and mayors from large cities from around the world pledged to cut in half the amount of trash they send to landfills, build more carbon-neutral buildings, and encourage walking and cycling in their cities over the next few decades. A coalition which consists of 16 states, Puerto Rico, hundreds of cities, and nearly 2,000 businesses has vowed to press ahead with climate action and ensure that the United States meets former President Barack Obama’s Paris pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Several blue-state governors met with the environment ministers of Canada and Mexico to develop partnerships on such matters as electric vehicles and curbing emissions of methane; and the governors of California, New York, Maryland, and Connecticut agreed to develop regulations to curtail hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the gasses used in air-conditioners and refrigerators. (Two years ago, countries around the world signed a pact to phase out HFCs, but Donald Trump has not submitted the pact for ratification and the U.S. has not developed federal regulations for such a phase-out.)

Researchers and scientists who attended the session said it’s already quite late in the climate change spiral to be coming up with first-step strategies. A group of researchers released information that showed what it would take to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the internationally agreed-upon goal. Among the tactics that would be necessary, they said: a rapid transformation of the world’s energy system (measures such as banning the sales of gasoline vehicles in many cities within a decade). The strategies the researchers recommended went far beyond many of the proposals made in California.

“We need to be thinking about exponential changes” that extend far beyond the incremental changes discussed in California, said Johan Rockström, a sustainability scientist.

U.S. politicians who attended the sessions said a significant challenge for this country is to overcome the perception the rest of the world holds that the U.S. hasn’t bowed out of the effort, a widely held perception since Trump vowed to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Some say that despite the air of momentum that existed during the summit and in the hours after it ended, the announcements and agreements that came out of it, while well intentioned, will not really accomplish much to impact the current trajectory. Cities around the world will have to rigorously abide by aggressive new policies, and in this country, states and municipalities other than those located along the coasts would have to join in the efforts.

And yet, they acknowledge, any first steps, and any perceptions of momentum will most certainly be a good thing. And these first steps could have a positive impact on ongoing United National climate negotiations.

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